Summary from Goodreads:
English is the world language, except that most of the world doesn’t speak it–only one in five people does. Dorren calculates that to speak fluently with half of the world’s 7.4 billion people in their mother tongues, you would need to know no fewer than twenty languages. He sets out to explore these top twenty world languages, which range from the familiar (French, Spanish) to the surprising (Malay, Javanese, Bengali). Babel whisks the reader on a delightful journey to every continent of the world, tracing how these world languages rose to greatness while others fell away and showing how speakers today handle the foibles of their mother tongues. Whether showcasing tongue-tying phonetics or elegant but complicated writing scripts, and mind-bending quirks of grammar, Babel vividly illustrates that mother tongues are like nations: each has its own customs and beliefs that seem as self-evident to those born into it as they are surprising to the outside world. Among many other things, Babel will teach you why modern Turks can’t read books that are a mere 75 years old, what it means in practice for Russian and English to be relatives, and how Japanese developed separate “dialects” for men and women. Dorren lets you in on his personal trials and triumphs while studying Vietnamese in Hanoi, debunks ten widespread myths about Chinese characters, and discovers that Swahili became the lingua franca in a part of the world where people routinely speak three or more languages. Witty, fascinating and utterly compelling, Babel will change the way you look at and listen to the world and how it speaks.
I very much enjoyed Lingo (Dorren’s tour through 60!languages of Europe) and so was definitely looking forward to Babel, where Dorren does a deep-dive into the 20 most-spoken languages of the world. What’s nice about Dorren’s writing is the way he constructs each chapter to serve the point he wants to make in the chapter. One might be presented as a Q&A, another a history of the region which then impacted on the development of the language (Tamil, for example), another a recounting of his attempt to learn a serviceable amount of the language (Vietnamese). This is a much more nuts-and-bolts-of-language book rather than a quick jaunt through the world but he still keeps it readable.
(I was quite amused that at one point Dorren quotes some research about the “weirdness” of a language, kind of a summation of it’s unique qualities compared to other languages, and it turns out that German was the most weird of the twenty languages under study in this book. Poor me. German is the only other language that I could possibly converse in – and it is hard to learn! Haha!)
Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.